Remembering The Time Long Ago When Journalism Actually Meant Something

Robert MacNeil, who died last week at age 93, may have been the last of his generation of broadcast journalists who set standards for quality and reliability that one could argue have largely disappeared.

MacNeil was best known as the co-anchor, with Jim Lehrer, of PBS’s flagship newscast, now known as “PBS NewsHour,” from 1975 to 1995.

In MacNeil’s 20-year association with the newscast, it was titled “The Robert MacNeil Report,” “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” and “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.”

After MacNeil left in 1995, Lehrer anchored the show solo until 2011.

In an era before 24-hour, all-news, all-blathering cable news, and instant news of 280 characters or less on social media, the “MacNeil/Lehrer” newscasts stood at the pinnacle of TV news for their ethics, accuracy and credibility.



And that’s saying a lot, because those traits could be applied to most -- if not all -- of broadcast news in the era when ABC, CBS, NBC and in its first decades, CNN, were among the most respected news sources in all of journalism.

MacNeil’s career went so far back that he was one of the TV journalists in Dallas (working then for NBC) when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. 

He may have been the last one of the correspondents in Dallas that day who was still alive at the time of his death.

In addition to the way social media has impacted the reporting -- or more to the point, the spread of news -- these days, perhaps the biggest difference between news in the MacNeil era and today is the way news is weaponized in support of social causes and divergent political points of view.

People often decry the partisan conquest of newsrooms today. A story in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal gave details of various rebellions at The New York Times when some partisan staffers apparently objected to the way the paper was covering social issues they were passionate about.

According to the story, the rebellions and outcries did silence some voices on the staff and even led to some of them departing from the paper.

This is certainly a change in newsroom culture. I always accepted the idea that newsrooms are not democracies.

Basically, you did what you were told. Perhaps that’s not the case anymore.

But underlying the whole partisan way of doing things today is the one characteristic over all others that appears to be missing today -- and that is skepticism.

This was once a very conspicuous character trait of the top journalists. Skepticism of everything and everyone -- particularly what the powerful were telling you -- was seen as the best way to see one’s way to the truth.

Whether or not Robert MacNeil possessed the trait of skepticism is something I do not know. I never met the man.

But he and the rest of the news stars of his era had this difficult-to-define aura of rising above -- or standing to the side of -- the news they were reporting.

They stood in the thick of battles and assassinations, but cast themselves as observers, not participants.

All of this is a long way of saying good-bye to Robert MacNeil and the era of news he represented. 

2 comments about "Remembering The Time Long Ago When Journalism Actually Meant Something".
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  1. Linda Shafran from NBCUniversal, April 16, 2024 at 2:36 p.m.

    Lovely 'eulogy' for Robert MacNeil. 

  2. Steve Beverly from Union Broadcasting System, April 16, 2024 at 4:44 p.m.

    Nailed it again, Adam.  When journalism was really journalism, network correspondents were truly skeptical of all government information and officials, regardless of the party, President, or the reporter's own views.

    Anyone with a working prism knows that is not the general practice today with the general mainline media.

    We won't replace the McNeils of the world with people who have even half the talent----or skepticism.

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